Kentucky lost to Kansas. Was it simply a missed opportunity or more cause for concern?
The scene in Rupp Arena on Saturday night had all the makings of a Kentucky basketball classic.
A group of Wildcats whose season had looked like it was going nowhere just two and half weeks earlier walked into the building the winners of four in a row. The UK fans — many of whom had seemingly given up all hope after those early struggles — were out in force.
And the opponent: the No. 9-ranked Kansas Jayhawks, the defending national champions and Kentucky’s latest opportunity to put a marquee victory on its NCAA Tournament résumé.
Two hours before tipoff, Coach John Calipari retweeted a video that showed UK students waiting in a long line to get into Rupp. “We can’t wait to hear you screaming for our team tonight!!” Calipari said in that social media post.
When Rupp’s doors finally opened, that line of blue and white snaked down all the way down High Street, no end in clear sight. And before the ball was even tipped, those fans were indeed screaming.
The home of Kentucky basketball was as packed 30 minutes before this game began as it had been at any point in any game all season. Those fans cheered their Wildcats on to an uncharacteristically quick start.
The final result? A missed opportunity. Kansas 77, Kentucky 68.
And how the Cats arrived at that final score was a mix of bad basketball luck, some head-scratching stats and the same old flaws that have plagued this Kentucky team from the start.
In the end, it was an unfulfilled chance to bolster a body of work that remains largely lacking. And it’s a loss that gives Kentucky even less of a margin for error with Selection Sunday just six weeks away.
With Rupp roaring, the notoriously slow-starting Cats jumped out to a 9-4 lead. It didn’t last. Kansas point guard Dajuan Harris Jr. hit two three-pointers a few minutes later to give KU its first lead of the game, 16-15, and the Jayhawks largely found their groove from there.
“We had run terrible offense in the first five minutes. And we didn’t guard ’em at all the first five minutes,” KU Coach Bill Self said. “And they were just playing with us. And so, sometimes, making a shot covers up some poor play, and that’s what happened early. And then we kind of settled in after that.”
After some back and forth, Kansas retook the lead with 9:17 remaining in the first half and never trailed again.
This game happened exactly two weeks after Kentucky turned its season around with a shocking victory at No. 5 Tennessee, just four days after finding rock bottom with a loss in Rupp to South Carolina, the lowest-ranked team in the Southeastern Conference.
In the two weeks since, UK beat Georgia, then Texas A&M, then Vanderbilt.
“The win they got at Tennessee was very similar to the win we got tonight,” Self said. “They didn’t have a lot of momentum at that moment — and we didn’t either — and they probably put together as good a performance as we’ve seen on the road. And I don’t know that ours was that good tonight, but considering where we were …”
Kansas came into town with three straight losses. Self had never lost four straight in 20 seasons as the Jayhawks’ head coach. Obviously, he still hasn’t. And while Saturday’s game remained close throughout — and Kentucky had plenty of chances to retake the lead down the stretch — anyone who watched with an objective mind would likely say the better team won. And it’s clear the losing side still has a lot to work on moving forward.
Self wasn’t shy about one point of emphasis leading up to this game.
“I’ll be candid: we hoped to attack them in the pick and roll,” he said.”… I don’t know how many points we scored off ball screens, but it had to be close to 20 tonight. So that was really good for us.”
Defending ball screens has been a major problem for Kentucky all season, especially against good teams, and it resurfaced again Saturday night. Calipari said afterward that Kansas was physical with the way it ran such sets and that his players didn’t necessarily react the right way.
“We’ll get better,” he said. “And how we were playing it and what we were trying to do — we just kept getting knocked off point. And you say, ‘Well how did that happen?’ I don’t know. Watch the tape. They did a great job of the initial screen. But you gotta make some shots, guys.”
To that point, the Cats struggled. Mightily.
Kentucky made 70 percent of its two-point shots in the first half but still trailed by seven at the break. Why? Well, the Cats were 0-for-6 on three-pointers and 4-for-11 on free throws (another problem area this season). They recovered to make all 12 of their free throws in the second half, but UK ended up 2-for-13 from long range, bad enough for both its lowest total for threes and its worst percentage (15.4) of the season.
Meanwhile, Kansas put Kentucky away with deep-range bombs of its own.
Jacob Toppin’s jumper cut KU’s lead to 64-62 with 5:15 left. KU’s Gradey Dick made a three on the next possession to push the lead back to five. Oscar Tshiebwe answered with a bucket. And then Jalen Wilson promptly hit another three to make it a six-point game. Two Tshiebwe free throws later, KU’s Kevin McCullar beat the shot clock with a three to make it 73-66 with 3:09 left.
Kentucky never got within five points from there. Game over.
“You’ve gotta make those kind of plays,” Calipari said. “And they made ’em.”
They also manhandled Kentucky on the boards, the biggest shocker of the night.
UK came into the game as one of the best offensive rebounding teams in America. Kansas came in as a not-all-that-great rebounding squad.
The Cats managed exactly zero offensive rebounds in 16 chances in the first half. For the game, UK had four offensive boards and zero second-chance points.
“You gotta be kidding me,” Calipari said after pointing out those stats.
Whether this was a situation of things simply not breaking Kentucky’s way or whether it was an indication that these Wildcats are still a long way off from cementing themselves as an NCAA Tournament team will become more apparent in the coming weeks.
That Tennessee victory was huge, but the Vols did miss a ton of shots at the basket. And UK did struggle before putting away Georgia and Texas A&M at home. The Vanderbilt win — as good of a team effort as it was — won’t wow anyone on the NCAA Tournament’s selection committee.
And the Wildcats still need to do some wowing.
UK is now 1-6 in Quad 1 games, the toughest matchups a team can play, according to the NCAA’s metrics, and an important measure leading up to Selection Sunday.
Kentucky still has six such games on the schedule, but a couple (Auburn in Rupp, at Mississippi State) could slip into the Quad 2 range by the end of the regular season. This is a Kentucky basketball team still firmly on the NCAA Tournament bubble, make no mistake.
When Dick stepped to the free-throw line to make two more and set the final score with 28 seconds left Saturday, a large chunk of those Kentucky fans who were cheering so wildly throughout the night were already filling the Rupp Arena aisles, their attention pointed toward the exits.
But afterward, the tone of the Kentucky players wasn’t nearly as dire or dejected as it had been after that loss to South Carolina. Plenty of soul-searching followed that defeat, and — after this loss — Toppin, Tshiebwe and Antonio Reeves spoke of a team not looking for its identity but one that’s found it and just hit a bump in the road.
The next few weeks will show just how far these Cats have really come.
“We’re good,” Toppin said. “Yeah, we took a tough loss. We made a few mistakes down the stretch that cost us the game. But we’re still together. We’re not going to separate now. We’ve been through worse. You guys know it. So we’re just going to come back tomorrow, watch film, see what we can get better at. And just get ready for our next game.”
Kentucky at Ole Miss
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 14-7 (5-4 SEC), Ole Miss 9-12 (1-8)
Series: Kentucky leads 109-14
Last meeting: Kentucky won 83-72 on March 1, 2022, in Lexington
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